This might seem like some profound oxymoron, but the question behind it is a legitimate one…can the sugar free sweet substances known as ‘artificial’ sweeteners actually have a ‘natural’ sugar free option?
What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are a non- nutritive, low calorie and intensely sweet alternative to sugar, meaning they have no nutritional value and contain zero calories. The only exception to this rule is the heavily scrutinised Aspartame which contains just 4kcal/g, much lower in calories than table sugar (20kcal/g). However, some sweetening agents are blended with tiny amounts of dextrose and/or maltodextrin to dilute the intensity of sweetness, examples are granulated sweeteners that are sprinkled on cereals etc. Consequently these add small amounts of calories, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has it that if a sweetener contains less than 5kcal then it can be labelled as calorie free. So a low calorie, intensely sweet powder that flavours food and drink without implicating blood sugar levels must be superior to regular sugar in every single way, right…well, not quite (FDA, 2013)!
How are they used?
Sweeteners are added to food and drink either during the manufacturing process or after, providing the sweet taste that many desire but without the calories and the characteristic physiological responses associated with the consumption of sugar. They are used to minimise total calorie intake, a major public health goal because of the implications excess weight has on obesity, and secondary chronic conditions.
Types of artificial sweetener
Artificial sweeteners are also known as ‘Low calorie sweeteners’ for the reasons mentioned above. There is no official categorisation of ‘artificial’ sweeteners and ‘natural artificial sweeteners’, despite the sources of many sweeteners being very different. Artificial sweeteners include:
- Acesulfame K
The first 3 on the list, Sorbitol, Mannitol and Xylitol are known as polyols and are derived from sugars. Sucralose is also derived from sugar but is not an alcohol sugar. Saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame K known as food additives because they have absolutely no chemical or nutritional relationship with sugars. Of these ‘food additives’ per se, the only one that is actually metabolised by the body is Aspartame.
‘Natural’ ‘Artificial’ Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic in nature, they are all either chemically made or processed, however there are some sweeteners that are more natural in their nature. Despite this, even sweeteners that are sourced from natural products of plant origin are still deemed to be ‘artificial’. Why is something derived from a leaf, or the bark of a tree deemed any more artificial than sugar is, which is predominantly sourced from the root of a plant known as a beet? Yes these products undergo processing and refinement in order to produce the end product we add to our food and drink, but is it fair to label these as ‘artificial’, basically putting them in the same bracket as sweeteners derived from chemicals?
Stevia is a plant based sweetener approved for use in the UK in late 2011, it’s an ultra sweet substance derived from leaves meaning it could feasibly pass as a more ‘natural’ type of sweetener. Although Xylitol is an alcohol sugar, it is sourced from a variety of (what many would deem) natural sources including the fibres of fruit and veg, berries, oats and mushrooms. Xylitol can even be sourced from corn husks, sugar cane fibrous matter known as Bagasse, and even Birch!
How are sweeteners governed?
Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA and are categorised as ‘food additives’. In order for a sweetener to be made available for sale in the UK it has to be approved by the FDA. Sweeteners are categorised differently according to their relative safety, for example the FDA can declare a substance as ‘generally recognised as safe’ (GRAS) meaning it has been deemed by a board of qualified professionals based on scientific evidence to be safe. Alternatively a substance might have been in common use for such a long period of time that it is generally considered safe and doesn’t need FDA approval. Stevia is an example of these highly refined preparations, and is generally accepted as safe…and arguably, a more natural form of sweetener. Sweeteners such as Stevia, Tagatose and Trehalose are considered as Novel sweeteners because they do not have a clear category based on their derivation and processing techniques.
So are sweeteners better or worse? Some may argue that sweeteners could be damaging to health because of a study performed approx 30 years ago which found a link between sweeteners and cancers in mice (this has not been further validated since). Conversely many will acknowledge the benefit sweeteners have on minimising the prevalence of obesity and secondary conditions such as heart disease and cancers, because of the reduced caloric content. Sweeteners, in my opinion, have their place, they do have less calories and exert far fewer (if any) physiological responses on blood sugar levels. If used properly and not to excess then artificial sweeteners do have a place in a healthy balanced diet. Is there such a thing as a ‘natural artificial sweetener’ as contradictory as it sounds...well, no not officially…but I think if given the choice I would opt for a sweetener such as Stevia or Xylitol derived from a once living organism ahead of a chemically derived artificial sweetener, but that’s just me. Honestly, it’s just about getting the balance right, it comes down to that moderation cliché once again, too much of anything is probably not that good for you.
Food Standards Agency, (2008). Manual of Nutrition. 11th Ed. Non-sugar sweeteners. London: TSO
Mayoclinic, (2013). Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes. Retrieved, 12th November, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com
Medline Plus, (2013). Trusted Health Information For You. Sweeteners Artificial. Retrieved, 12th November, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007492.ht
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (2013). Sweeteners. Retrieved, 12th November, 2013, from http://www.fda.gov/